During a drug trafficking trial 18 years ago, the mention of Michael
Conahan linked to 1990s cocaine probe
Ex-county judge never charged
During a drug trafficking trial 18 years ago, the mention of Michal Conahan’s name brought the proceedings to a halt.
Huddling in the front of the courtroom so the jury could not hear them, Kosik, then-assistant U.S. Attorney Malachy Mannion and defense attorney Leonard Sands engaged in a testy discussion on how to proceed in the drug trafficking trial of Ronald Belletiere in Scranton.
According to a transcript of the testimony from April 9, 1991, Hazleton businessman Neal DeAngelo, called as a government witness, had just said he had been tipped by Conahan, “telling me that he had heard my brother’s name mentioned down in city hall there in reference to some drug activity that was going on and he just wanted to advise me of the name being mentioned.”
Mannion wanted Neal DeAngelo to continue his testimony about Conahan, while Sands, Belletiere’s attorney, argued against it.
“Call Conahan,” Kosik told Mannion.
“I can’t call Conahan,” Mannion replied. “I’m not in a position to be able to call Conahan in this case.”
Federal authorities had been investigating Conahan for, among other things, his role in arranging a drug deal through Belletiere and the DeAngelos, Mannion acknowledged. Up until that point, the investigation had been secret and Conahan’s case was separate from Belletiere’s, Mannion added.
“I’m sorry, I can tell you frankly that Michael Conahan is an unindicted co-conspirator in this case, and the testimony that this witness will elicit will show that Conahan had involvement in this conspiracy,” Mannion informed Kosik and Sands.
Although he figured prominently in the testimony, Conahan was neither called to the witness stand nor ever charged as a result of the investigation. And the details remain mostly secret nearly 20 years later.
Since the investigation, Conahan was elected twice to the Luzerne County bench and is the target of a judicial corruption probe that led to last week’s 48-count indictment charging him and former judge Mark A. Ciavarella with receiving millions in illegal payments related to the construction and operation of two juvenile detention centers.
Mannion, a U.S. Magistrate Judge in Wilkes-Barre, last week declined comment on why no charges were brought against Conahan.
Conahan, through his attorney Philip Gelso, also declined comment.
But even with their silence and that of others, court documents provide a view of the lengths federal investigators went to build a case against Conahan nearly two decades ago.
Transcript tells of cocaine trip
Two years after Paul DeAngelo, his brother Neal and Neil Forte flew to Miami in 1987 to buy cocaine, the FBI came looking for him, according to a transcript of Paul DeAngelo’s 1994 sentencing. It would take until 1992 before Paul DeAngelo was charged with possession with intent to distribute a kilogram of cocaine and two more years would pass before the Hazleton businessman was sentenced.
For most of that 7 � years, Paul DeAngelo and his attorney Robert Mazzoni, now a Lackawanna County judge, said he played a key role in the investigation of “a public official.” At his sentencing, Paul DeAngelo regretted his crime, but also expressed his displeasure with how slow the criminal justice system moved.
For his help the government asked that the five-year sentence he faced be reduced to two years, but he wanted to avoid prison. Almost 30 years old, he had a family to care for and a business to run with his brother. He had cooperated with the government’s investigation and that was partly the reason the case took so long to conclude. Federal investigators wanted to get the most out of him.
“Paul DeAngelo also worked in an undercover capacity. He wore a concealed recording device and engaged a local public official in conversation,” read the government document that was filed two days before his Aug. 10, 1994 sentencing and asked for a big reduction in his sentence.
The filing said he “provided information about that public official’s involvement in arranging a cocaine source of supply for individuals in Hazleton,” and listed other conduct of the unnamed official such as ticket-fixing and his “hidden interest in a business.”
It turned out that the recording was not of much use.
“I’m not privy to the quality, but I understand that the quality of the statements that were contained were of such a quality that they could not be used,” Mazzoni said, according to a transcript of Paul DeAngelo’s sentencing.
As part of his cooperation, Paul DeAngelo also met with Assistant Chief Counsel Skip Arbuckle of the Judicial Inquiry and Review Board to provide the same information given to federal investigators.
Arbuckle, a U.S. Magistrate Judge in State College, last week spoke about the board’s focus but would not comment specifically about the meeting with Paul DeAngelo. “The only jurisdiction we had was over judges” which included district magistrates,” Arbuckle said.
The DeAngelo brothers, whose two-man lawn care business has grown into the nationwide commercial and industrial services company DBi Services on North Conahan Drive, Hazleton, declined comment.
Paul DeAngelo was sentenced to 18 months in prison, fined $5,000 and placed on probation for four years. His case was officially discharged on May 5, 1999, according to court records.
Name comes up frequently
When Paul DeAngelo said he was involved in drugs, he was a different person, he told Kosik at his sentencing in U.S. District Court for the Middle District Pennsylvania, Scranton.
“I had gotten involved with a public official, who, again, further confused me at an age of 21, which was a long time ago in my life,” DeAngelo said.
“He didn’t put you on his knee and offer you candy, did he?” Kosik asked.
“Yeah, he … and it screwed up some of my moral decisions. And it was really tough for me at time (sic), because morally I didn’t believe it was right,” DeAngelo answered.
Although the “public official” was not identified during the proceedings, Kosik would have had a strong idea who it was from the involved sidebar conversation with Mannion and Sands during trial three years earlier.
On the stand in 1991, Neal DeAngelo testified he had received a call in 1986 from Conahan, who mentioned Paul DeAngelo’s name. The call confirmed Neal’s suspicions his brother was using drugs. Paul had been hanging around with Forte and coming in to work late.
Through conversations with his brother and Forte, Neal DeAngelo learned about the drug trade in Hazleton. Forte, as it turned out, was looking to find a new source to buy cocaine from and Neal DeAngelo promised him he would call Conahan to run the name of a suspected drug dealer by him.
“And as a result of that conversation with Conahan, did you tell Neil Forte about a different source?” Mannion asked, according to the trial transcript.
“Yes, as a result of my conversation with Mike, I told him that someone would be getting in touch with me that may been (sic) a good source for him to buy from,” Neal DeAngelo testified.
A few weeks later, Neal DeAngelo received a call from a man who identified himself as “Ronnie,” according to the trial transcript.
It wasn’t a random call. Someone had given Ron Belletiere, a former Hazleton resident living in Miami, Neal DeAngelo’s number.
“Yeah,” Neal DeAngelo recollected, according to the transcript of his testimony, “he said at the direction of Mike Conahan I’m calling you to see if we can do some business, or I heard you were interested in doing some business up in Hazleton.”
A few weeks later Belletiere met Neal DeAngelo at the Sheraton hotel near the Allentown airport. Paul DeAngelo accompanied his brother, much to Belletiere’s dismay who only wanted to deal with Neal DeAngelo.
The three discussed buying two to five kilograms of cocaine with Forte paying for it. The brothers left without committing to an amount or price and Belletiere stayed at the hotel. But during their discussions, Conahan’s name came up, according to the transcript.
“Yeah, we talked about Michael when we originally met,” Neal DeAngelo said. “I mean, he was the one who kind of put us in touch with each other, so we talked about Mike briefly and Ronnie told me Mike was coming down later on that evening to meet him.”
Incident happens on road
It would be months before Belletiere and Neal DeAngelo would meet again. This time the DeAngelo brothers and Forte flew to Miami to buy cocaine. They stayed at a hotel near the airport and Neal DeAngelo met exclusively with Belletiere. The sale occurred in Belletiere’s Mercedes convertible and Neil DeAngelo handed over a paper bag with $26,500 in cash.
They stayed the night and the next day Neal DeAngelo met with Belletiere to talk about future deals. The DeAngelos and Forte went to the airport with Neal DeAngelo carrying the cocaine in his overnight bag. He checked it and they boarded the flight north.
The trip was uneventful, except for something that happened on the drive from Newark to Hazleton, Neal DeAngelo recalled.
“But for some unknown reason when we were coming across Route 80, I’ll never forget,” he said, according to the transcript. “We were coming across Route 80 and through New Jersey when we were coming across 80 twice a state trooper pulled up alongside of the car driving at the same speed we were and just kind of shined the light in the car and just kind of looked in the car. Didn’t pull us over or stop or anything, but it was almost as if – as they knew or, I don’t understand it, but that’s what happened.”
Neal DeAngelo, who was not charged, said he never used cocaine and received $500 for his work from Forte.
A single charge was filed against Paul DeAngelo in 1992, almost a year after Belletiere’s trial.
Federal investigators were attempting to mount a case against Conahan and relied on Paul DeAngelo and Belletiere. Both men met separately with someone from the judicial conduct and review board, according to court records. Paul DeAngelo’s meeting occurred a year before he was sentenced and information was made public about his cooperation investigating “a public official.”
A few days after the sentencing, Conahan called the statements linking him to drug dealing “outrageous and unfounded charges.”
He had been silent until The Times Leader reported on the testimony of Neal DeAngelo and the cooperation of Paul DeAngelo.
“I was aware that there was a trial and I was aware that my name was mentioned during the course of that trial. But I didn’t think anything of it,” he said during a press conference he held on Aug. 14, 1994 in response to the newspaper story.
Conahan, a Democrat then serving his first year on the Luzerne County bench, having won a bitter contest against incumbent Joseph Musto in 1993, said he would cooperate with the judicial inquiry and review board.
Near the end of his 10-year term in 2003, Conahan confirmed the board conducted an investigation and exonerated him. He said that he was told by the board, approximately a year after the allegations surfaced, that there would be no complaint filed against him.
Reached last week in his Harrisburg office, Joseph Massa Jr. chief counsel for the Judicial Conduct Board, the new name of the judicial inquiry and review board, said “any files of complaints that were dismissed were destroyed after seven years.” He would not comment on whether a complaint was filed against Conahan.
To read the transcript of Neal DeAngelo’s testimony visit www.timesleader.com
By Jerry Lynott